Religious illiteracy is the norm

By Razib Khan | September 29, 2010 12:01 am

By now you probably know that:

Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons are among the highest-scoring groups on a new survey of religious knowledge, outperforming evangelical Protestants, mainline Protestants and Catholics on questions about the core teachings, history and leading figures of major world religions.

On average, Americans correctly answer 16 of the 32 religious knowledge questions on the survey by the Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion & Public Life. Atheists and agnostics average 20.9 correct answers. Jews and Mormons do about as well, averaging 20.5 and 20.3 correct answers, respectively. Protestants as a whole average 16 correct answers; Catholics as a whole, 14.7. Atheists and agnostics, Jews and Mormons perform better than other groups on the survey even after controlling for differing levels of education.


If you are part of a minority group you’ll often get into discussions about religion. Since I “look” Hindu/Muslim and am pretty frank about my atheism I’ve gotten into discussions more frequently than most (perhaps the weirdest experience was a conversation with an evangelical acquaintance in high school who was ready to argue with me about how demonic Hinduism was; as I wasn’t Hindu, and I didn’t know much about Hinduism, it was somewhat disappointing for my acquaintance). By chance when I was 18 I was at an InterVarsity Christian Fellowship event (I was young and wasn’t told about the nature of the “party”) and the pastor started talking about how “we all believe in Christ.” At that point I raised my hand and explained that 1) I didn’t believe in Christ, and, 2) I didn’t believe in God. Didn’t want to implicitly mislead. After a bit of awkwardness the fun went on.

Obviously over the years I’ve read up a fair amount on religion. You’d probably be aware of that if you read the blog. One of the weirder outcomes of my religious literacy is that it occasionally happens that people will simply refuse to believe I’m an atheist. I had a friend in college who was an evangelical and half-joked that I had to be some sort of crypto-Christian, and I’d eventually “come out” and accept in my heart what I obviously already knew with my head. In the end I wasn’t a fool. In a less amusing case I had a Jewish individual accuse me of being a crypto-Muslim intent on undermining the state of Israel, as I just knew too much about Judaism for there to be any other possibility.

You too can take Pew’s religious knowledge quiz. 15 questions which take only a few minutes. Since readers of this weblog are among the minority of humans which fall into the class intelligent I suspect you’ll beat the average American at this game (I scored a 15 out of 15).

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Culture, Religion
MORE ABOUT: Data, Religion
  • Alan

    Amazingly easy. I got 13 out of 15, 95th percentile, and the two I didn’t get were so deeply US-specific that as a non-American I couldn’t reasonably be expected to have a clue (prayer in publich schools and names of some born-again preachers)

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  • Solitha

    13/15. I missed the questions about the Jewish Sabbath (I wavered), and about the First Great Awakening (no knowledge at all).

    No idea what religious label applies to me, though.

  • http://phylogenous.wordpress.com Kele

    14/15. Only one I got wrong was the Jewish Sabbath. I thought it was Saturday but I guess it’s more Friday evening to Saturday evening so I wasn’t totally wrong – I knew it wasn’t Sunday.

    I find it embarrassing that the average score is so low. These questions are so basic… That people chose Billy Graham for the Great Awakening question is particularly embarrassing. Perhaps it was just name recognition + John Edwards being a current politician. It’s also the only question where atheists and agnostics did worse than the average.

    Also, the fact that so many people got #11 (the teaching the Bible as literature) wrong is troubling. When people complain that the schools are destroying religion or some such talk, is their misconception that the Bible can’t be taught as literature influencing that view? Would people be as angry if they knew the actual policies concerning religion in the public schools?

  • http://mengbomin.wordpress.com/ Meng Bomin

    Of course, the 15 question quiz didn’t include the dreaded Maimonides question that stumped 92% of survey respondents (of course, 57% of Jews got it right).

    To be fair, they included the “second hardest” question concerning the First Great Awakening which stumped 89%. Actually, to give them even more credit, the quiz took questions that averaged to the same correct response rate as the full 32 question set that they used in the survey (50%), so it was meant to be representative.

    Regardless, I think that it’s worth pointing out that in this survey, the Atheist/Agnostic category represents a minority of the larger Unaffiliated group. The other subcategory, “Nothing in particular”, has below average performance on the set of religious knowledge questions, leading me to wonder what sort of selection effects are at work.

    Unfortunately, that’s not an answerable question given the data and while it seems likely to me that the bulk of that group (Nothing in particular) falls under the “spiritual but not religious” label, it may also contain some of the more ignorant atheists and agnostics, thus “inflating” the scores of the self-identified atheists and agnostics relative to the rest.

    Don’t get me wrong, I don’t mind seeing the Atheist/Agnostic category listed as the highest performing on a religious knowledge survey, and that it was wasn’t a complete surprise, given the position of atheists and agnostics demographically in the United States, but I do wonder if the knowledge religious issues among atheists and agnostics is really as strong as this survey makes it appear.

    Moving on, some of the other interesting patterns were the generally high performance of Mormons, who as a rule tended to be more knowledgeable about topics related to Christianity than anyone else and who outperformed other Christians on topics related to other religions. (White) Evangelical Christians, on the other hand, were very strong on Christian topics, but made up for that with bad performance in other topics. I will note, however, that the Hispanic Catholics had them both beat on the concept of transubstantiation.

    Since Discover has this edit feature, I might as well use it to reply to the above comment rather than leave a second comment:
    I find it embarrassing that the average score is so low. These questions are so basic… That people chose Billy Graham for the Great Awakening question is particularly embarrassing. Perhaps it was just name recognition + John Edwards being a current politician. It’s also the only question where atheists and agnostics did worse than the average.

    In the quiz, yes, but Atheists/Agnostics also performed lower than average in naming all four gospels correctly. That question, of course, wasn’t on the quiz.

  • Shoup

    14/15 – Really, anyone immersed in popular culture should be able to get that many correct. Did we learn nothing from Seinfeld?

  • Solitha

    @Kele… the clue lay in the specific phrasing of the question, asking when the Sabbath begins, instead of what day of the week. From what I understand, older reckoning of time had day’s end at sunset, and year’s end around the end of harvest – thus leading us to things like Christmas Eve, and the oddity of Hallowe’en.

  • bioIgnoramus

    15/15 – but I always get frustrated that you can’t argue with these bloody things. Luther – yes, the key chap in the Reformation. But what
    about Wycliffe and Hus, then? I went to a proper school, you know.

  • Katharine

    14/15. I think I got the First Great Awakening one wrong.

  • Katharine

    … how people thought Maimonides wasn’t Jewish, if he had the first name ‘Moses’, I don’t know.

    In any case, the fact that people answered a lot of these questions wrong makes me pretty much unsurprised that most of the nation hasn’t gotten a lot more secular: most of the nation is pretty dumb.

  • Katharine

    I would have gotten all but one of the questions correct on the survey.

  • http://lyingeyes.blogspot.com ziel

    15/15 – but I confess I panicked a bit over whether “nirvana” is a Hindu or Buddhist concept – then I remembered there already was a Hindu answer, so I settled correctly on Buddhist.

    But, as Meng Bonim points out, unheralded in this study is the outstanding performance of Evangelicals – coming in below Atheists, Jews and Mormons and above Catholics and Mainline Protestants – when do you ever see that?

  • Rimon

    15 out of 15. wasn’t sure about the great awakening one, but guessed correctly!

    I’m an atheist Jew, so I guess I was bound to do well on this quiz.

    It is sad that American know so little about the religions of their neighbors, but honestly I’m not surprised. Most people don’t even know that much about their own religion, much less someone else’s.

  • http://www.examiner.com/x-8765-Manchester-Science-Examiner Earl Wajenberg

    I expect part of the distribution of religious knowledge is because a large fraction of non-believers deliberately drop their belief, and hence stand a chance of having thought about the issues, rather than coasting along with the religious position they were raised in. I’d bet if you looked at converts (from any religious position, to any position), you’d find a higher level of knowledge than among non-converts (of any position).

    Also, I expect people in minority positions (non-believers, Jews, Mormons, etc.) would be more knowledgeable because their position is always being challenged by the contrast with the majority positions, thus bringing the issues frequently to their attention.

    I notice the position “Nothing in particular” scores even lower than most of the Catholic and Protestant positions. The label strongly suggests indifference, which goes along with my idea that scoring high correlates with the amount of attention paid to the issues. This goes with the analysis of the survey on the NPR site.

    By the way, this is the first time I have seen the comments on any science-related blog with a religious topic get so far without several mouth-foaming denunciations of how awful religion is.

  • benj

    I got 14/15 but I am not American and had no idea about what is the “Great Awakening” or whatever. And I am a believing Jew.

  • Mary

    15/15. Guessed on great awakening. Agnostic. Atheism is the flip side of believing. Can’t be proven.

  • Nemesis

    13/15

    Do they really *believe* the bread and wine turn into Christ? Creepy!!!! Isn’t that cannibalism? ;)

  • Aaron

    15/15, Agnostic, go figure . . .

  • Stu

    Looking back on my years of attending Sunday school in the American south I can make the rough observation that those of us that paid attention in class left church in adulthood. The restless and cutups are now deacons.

  • http://nylandsmann.blogspot.com normann

    Catholics are _supposed to_ believe that the bread and wine turn into body and blood of Christ (and not just symbolically), but that so many of them take the Protestant view (namely that the Eucharist is a re-enactment of the Last Supper rather than of the sacrifice on the cross) is yet another sign of how Protestant American Catholics have become. I remember when I was a high school student back in the 70s selling raffle tickets to support my Catholic high school, one woman, who was clearly a lay fanatic, refused to buy chances because in her view my school was teaching heresy (she did give me an ultra-Marian pamphlet, though), and she asked me this very question (I must admit that I failed; the nuns only got me once a week during grade school, and my mother, though baptized Catholic to please her believing paternal grandmother, still had to take instruction to marry my father, but was not particularly orthodox).

  • http://Untitledvanityproject.blogspot.com Rhacodactylus

    15/15 but there were at least two that were more educated guesses than guaranteed correct answers.

  • Jeremy

    So, I went digging and found out that out of the 100 individuals surveyed, there was 1 Jew, 2 Mormons, 1 atheist, and 3 agnostics. Performing statistical analysis on such a small sample is almost as sad as the fact that 41 of the 100 surveyed don’t know that Joe Biden is VP (which is what I consider the saddest finding of this survey). Perhaps I’m reading the data wrong though.

    http://pewforum.org/uploadedFiles/Topics/Belief_and_Practices/religious-knowledge-topline.pdf

  • NeCole

    My experience was similar to Stu’s. I grew up in devout Christianity, and as an adult seeking answers, I studied other religions until I came to my own conclusions about all of it. I think that might explain why so many atheists/agnostics were high-scorers. Most of us started with religion and eventually realized it was nothing more than myth and a vehicle for living in fear.

  • miko

    I missed the Sabbath question (I thought it was Saturday), but so did 6% of Jews.

    I’m surprised there were no questions about the relationships between Abrahamic religions, or which religions are oldest / youngest etc.

  • Chris

    14/15 I missed the last one. I see this a lot that fundamentalists get a few phrases and run with it, and don’t study the entirety of the Bible. I went to Catholic HS and we studied the Old and New Testament. And I do mean studied. We looked at the different writing styles of the Gospels, what audience they were intended for, the order the stories were told, the historical context. How Catholicism related to Judaism and the historical evolution of the Church. We looked at the trees and the forest. This was valuable. We loved finding the contradictions in the Bible. There are two creation stories in Genesis! The Christmas story we’ve heard is not the same as in the Bible, there are some additions that have been made.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    So, I went digging and found out that out of the 100 individuals surveyedSo, I went digging and found out that out of the 100 individuals surveyed

    props for actually digging through the original report! so rare that readers go that far.

    anyway, don’t you think 100 is an awful suspicious number? :-) look closer, it’s the total percentage. N = 3,412. it’s at the top of the PDF you’re linking to as well.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    around 50% of religious “nones” were raised religious last i checked.

  • Christopher

    I probably got the lowest grade here, 12/15. :(

    It wouldn’t surprise me if similiar polls testing various areas of knowledge found the same result, i.e. most people don’t know much about anything (like polls of political knowledge, iirc).

  • Katharine

    Mr. Wajenberg, if you want a good nuanced example of how awful religion, particularly fundamentalism, is, look at the latest news on a really batsh*t insane Michigan assistant attorney general named Andrew Shirvell.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    christopher, ppl with lower scores are naturally less likely to share them. so there’s a bias in reporting….

  • trajan23

    I got 15 out of 15. Frankly, the test was unbelievably easy. The only question that I had any trouble with was the nirvana one, as the term is used in both Hinduism and Buddhism. Fortunately, the definition used in the question (freedom from suffering) allowed me to figure out that the correct answer was Buddhism.

    Sad to see how few people chose Jonathan Edwards, as he is a really crucial figure in the development of American Protestantism.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    it’s great, you can now use phrases like “sinners in the hands of an angry god” and pretend like you invented ‘em originally.

  • trajan23

    Razib: “it’s great, you can now use phrases like “sinners in the hands of an angry god” and pretend like you invented ‘em originally.”

    I used to pull stuff like that on my sister all the time.

    Actually, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” is one of the reasons why I was surprised that so few people were able to name Edwards. That sermon is included in just about every survey of American Lit.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    well, a good phrase is a good phrase. so often people would be like, “wow, did you just make that up?” and i’d be like, “oh, X said that in xxxx.” and then i’d get a really blank look. so sometimes i just lie and take the credit because i know the person isn’t going to know the historical figure anyway and it’ll be awkward. though that doesn’t happen often, i don’t converse much with the tardish-kind.

  • pconroy

    I’m an non-American raised Atheist, and got 14/15, I had no clue on reading the Bible or Prayer in class – but based on freedom of speech guessed that both would be allowed – so got one wrong there.

    The Great Awakening was a process of elimination.

    Those 3 above would be the most difficult for a non-US person.

    The Eucharist one would probably be the trickiest for a non-Catholic. I remember having that discussion as a young kid about how the Eucharist if taken literally was cannibalism, and in fact it was one of those pivotal points that made me see that religion was bunk, and simply a throwback to more primitive rituals from the dawn of humanity, with a thin veneer of modernity.

    I’ve no interest in religion, but agree that with the above exceptions, the questions were trivially easy.

  • Bob Craig

    As a former evangelical I would have thought that they would do better, considering the amount of time spent in Bible study. Or maybe my family were more devout than most. Anyway, this agnostic got 14/15. I hesitated on the Sabbath question and came down on the wrong side.

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  • http://www.libertypages.com/cgw clark

    I have to admit I got the Jonathan Edwards one wrong, to which people in many of the LDS blogs have been teasing me about. Honestly, it was never in any American Lit reader I had. I’d never even heard the name before.

    My impression is that atheists, Mormons and Jews did best simply because all three groups tend to be well educated. (Someone mentioned stats adjusted for education but I couldn’t see where that was noted although maybe I just missed the obvious)

    To add, there were some really weird things in the stats. For instance someone at my blog noted that only 93% of Mormons knew Joseph Smith was a Mormon. That’s kind of like an Evangelical not knowing Paul was a Christian. I mean I’m sure there are people that ignorant, but I kind of doubt they’d be the ones taking the survey.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    lol. omg. humans are such f*****g r*****s! but hey, there are atheists who think the bible is the word of god. some of it just happens to be very stupid people getting confused about the questions.

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    yes. they did correct, and the difference still showed up. part of it is that many conservative protestants with university degrees aren’t very intelligent. i have seen this in the GSS. re: mormons and education, last i checked you guys were around the national norm, not above average.

  • vgfv

    Crazy easy. the only excuse anyone should have for missing an answer is if you thought they were trying to fool you with some question. once you realize that it’s straightforward (yeah, Job complained but you know what the moronic poll is actually asking) it’s stupendously simple. i was actually disappointed that there weren’t any hard questions there at all. then again, maybe the jewish sabbath and transubstantiation questions require knowledge gained through an active interest. i know about the former both as a jew and as a one-time new yorker and i know about the latter due to the fact that it’s an interesting fact that crossed the threshold of my mind at some point.

  • toto

    I was under the impression that reaching Nirvana by ending the cycle of reincarnations is a pan-Indian concept, applying to Buddhism AND Hinduism (and Jainism too).

  • outeast

    Like others I was surprised by how easy the quiz was yet was caught out on a couple of questions. I’m actually surprised at the number of people reporting less than full marks: I’d have thought most people with the general literacy to be regular readers here should be getting 15/15 (I imagine I’m on the lower end of the curve in this readership).

    One observation: the survey seems rather generous when it comes to showing knowledge of faiths other than Christianity (and arguably Judaism)… The survey’s questions about Christianity and Judeism looked to me to require a rather more intimate knowledge of those faiths than those touching on, say, Hinduism and Buddhism. It might have been more revealing if the level of knowledge tested for each religion were more comparable (I’m sure I’d have done a lot worse, for one).

  • http://blogs.discovermagazine.com/gnxp Razib Khan

    hindus more often use the term ‘moksha.’ the gap is greater perhaps than that between english speaking christians saying ‘god’ and muslims using ‘allah,’ but i think it is the same flavor.

  • https://bluetenlese.wordpress.com M. Möhling

    Agnostic, possibly atheist, got 15/15, but only guessed the last one; didn’t know him, but the others seemed unlikely. For an international audience the other questions should seem moronic, the US results are disappointing (no schadenfreude, prolly not better elsewhere). btw: was the sample to small to include meaningful results for Muslims? (Asking in multiply bad faith, me? Yes)

  • http://www.libertypages.com/clarktech Clark

    Hey Razib, did you do a post on that? (Mormons and education, that is) I was about to do the gss but just had way too much stuff to do today to check.

    I found the study I was thinking of, Albrecht & Heaton, “Secularization, Higher Education, and Religiosity” had a fairly significant difference. But looking closer the date of that study is 1984. So it’s more than a little dated and that probably accounts for the difference. If American averages have caught up I wonder if it’s because Mormons tend to marry so young, biasing the figures on women. Whereas women in America in general have caught and surpassed males I believe. It’s interesting since at the time of the date of that prior study Mormon women were pretty significantly more educated than the national average.

  • B.B.

    Atheist, high-school drop-out, scored 14/15. The only question I got wrong was about the First Great Awakening (I selected Finney). I was disappointed that they didn’t include the Maimonides question, as I would’ve gotten that one right.

  • Carlos

    I am an atheist/agnostic and got 12/15. Missed the one on Job (thought immediately of Abraham, who unquestioningly offered his son. Don’t know much about Job), the Sabbath one (went for Saturday), and the one on the First Awakening (never had heard of it). The two questions on US policy were merely educated guesses.

  • trajan23

    My sister got 14 out of 15.

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This blog is about evolution, genetics, genomics and their interstices. Please beware that comments are aggressively moderated. Uncivil or churlish comments will likely get you banned immediately, so make any contribution count!

About Razib Khan

I have degrees in biology and biochemistry, a passion for genetics, history, and philosophy, and shrimp is my favorite food. In relation to nationality I'm a American Northwesterner, in politics I'm a reactionary, and as for religion I have none (I'm an atheist). If you want to know more, see the links at http://www.razib.com

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